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E-Gov Sites Gaining in Consumer Satisfaction

A handful of federal government websites are beginning to reach performance levels that sometimes rival those of private industry, according to data released Monday by the University of Michigan. The data is part of the E- Government Satisfaction Index, a customized special report of federal websites from the American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI).

The index measures a wide range of companies on a quarterly basis and is produced in partnership by the University of Michigan Business School, the American Society for Quality, the CFI Group, and ForeSee Results.

According to the report, all of the agencies measured earned scores that are at least passable, but some government-oriented websites are already in the range that rivals some of the best of the private sector.

Among the top performers are sites from the Department of Health and Human Services, Agriculture, and NASA. FirstGov.gov, the mammoth government portal, moved its score up considerably after a recent reorganization and redesign.

"E-government is really just beginning," said ForeSee Results CEO Larry Freed. "That we see as many high scores as we do is heartening. The others know they need to catch up as much as is feasible, and they're subjecting themselves to the harsh light of citizen evaluation. This can be painful, but it's the best way to get from here to there."

While some scores were barely passable, the report points out that some agencies have very particular customer segments and even "customers" who might prefer that the agency not even exist, which makes earning high satisfaction scores more difficult than the private sector.

"It is simply the nature of the public sector that there will always be a wide range of scores," said University of Michigan customer satisfaction expert Claes Fornell, who heads the ACSI. "Unlike private industry, government agencies don't always choose their customers, and, often, their customers don't choose them. In addition, there is no direct way for dissatisfied customers to penalize a provider of government services, by taking their business elsewhere. The financial consequences are not there."

Fornell and Freed's analysis suggests that other forces are pushing e- government where it needs to be, more quickly in some cases than in others. They cited clear expectations-setting by agencies and the improving ability of technology to lower the cost of providing services.

"The common elements of superior performance are reorganizing government in ways that make the most sense to site users, selectively bringing in elements of the style of commercial sites, leveraging the trust and reliability of the government, and stepping back to let users drive web development rather than forcing approaches on people," said Freed. "Really, e-government is defining its own path to success, and it is truly making government better and more user-friendly in the process. E-government is not the stereotypical bureaucrat view of the world but is becoming government cast in the image people want."

Jack West, past-president of the American Society for Quality, a co- sponsor of the ACSI, stated, "Virtually any transaction that can be conducted online, rather than in person, provides benefits to both the user and the government. Having websites the public likes to use should help the government achieve productivity gains similar to those realized during the last two years in the private sector."